SUNY-Wide Pooled COVID-19 Testing May Be More Effective, Expert Says

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Updated: 9/24/20 – 11:50 A.M.

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras announced earlier this month all SUNY campuses will implement COVID-19 pooled testing. Researchers at SUNY Upstate Medical University and Quadrant Biosciences in Syracuse developed the science behind it.

According to experts leading the testing process, their method of pooled surveillance testing may be more effective than others.

Frank Middleton (left) speaks with SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras during a recent visit. (SUNY Upstate Medical University)

Pooled testing can be a long and multi-step process. Lab techs combine around 25 different swab samples into a common “pool” and read the results of the group. If a pool comes back negative, then no one is presumed to have COVID-19. If a pool comes back positive, then every person needs to be tested again to find who is infected, and how many.

Frank Middleton is a researcher on the team leading the testing at Upstate Medical University. He has done research on saliva testing for biomarkers over the last decade.

Middleton said going back and testing each individual takes a lot of time and materials, resources colleges trying to contain the spread of the virus don’t have.

“So our solution actually solves the problem of being able to pool liquid from different samples and also preserving the individual swabs for the follow-up test,” Middleton said.

That means the lab can rapidly test the same swabs used in the pool to find the individuals who tested positive, no second swab needed. It can be used for both community health surveillance and diagnostic testing without expending more resources.

The New York Department of Health gave the test the go-ahead on Sept. 1. It was granted emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday.**

More than 110,000 swab packages (above) have been deployed to 38 campuses across New York State. (SUNY Upstate Medical University)

38 New York colleges are now participating in testing with the lab at Upstate Medical. The majority are part of SUNY.

Middleton said students and staff tested should receive results in no more than two days. Those rapid results are especially important for colleges required to go on pause or close dorms indefinitely.

“Time is important information for campuses and healthcare professionals to have, especially when we’re talking about releasing college students home to potentially spread an infection,” he said.

Middleton said the lab is equipped to provide widespread testing through the end of the academic year.

The test developed by Upstate Medical and Quadrant Biosciences is highly accurate, but even then there’s a limit.

On college campuses, where students live close together and transmission rates are high, containing the virus comes with many challenges.

According to Middleton, once someone is exposed to the virus, it can take up to seven days before it gets to a level even sensitive tests like the swab can detect.

“When you provide a sample for a test, it is a snapshot in time,” Middleton said. “It’s a false situation to assume it protects you going forward or predicts if you’re truly going to be negative for the next several days, through the incubation period.”

Middleton said those with the virus brewing can still be highly infectious, even if asymptomatic.

“We know it’s during that time that most of the transmission is likely to occur,” Middleton said. “That’s what’s so insidious about this, this virus.”

Per guidance from Governor Andrew Cuomo, colleges with 100 cases or a five percent infection rate over two weeks must go online for 14 days. SUNY Oneonta, in Otsego County, became the state’s first public college forced to switch to online learning in late August. Less than a week later, Chancellor Malatras directed the campus to close all in-person classes and send students living on campus home for the semester. The college asked students living on campus who tested negative for COVID-19 to move out in the days that followed.

According to Middleton, sending students home after a negative result bears the risk that a student is leaving while in the early stages of an infection. The only way to know for sure if a negative result is truly negative is to isolate and then get another test five to seven days later.*

*The headline of this story has been edited from its original version for clarity. 

**This story has been updated from its original version to reflect the change in FDA approval.